I never thought that a few days working in a museum would inspire me. The quiet, ordered presentation of the natural world in a setting locked away from the elements has always lacked what I love most about research and wildlife: being outside, in wild places; the excitement of searching for and eventually seeing live animals; observing and documenting those experiences. Fieldwork is, for me, the most meaningful part of biological research because it is a process of discovery – of the natural behaviour of animals, of the ways in which the fate of animals, habitats and human communities are linked, and of my own strengths and limitations.
|A handful of rostra (saws) from young Largetooth Sawfish collected from the Gambia River in 1974. (c) Ruth H. Leeney.|
|Nigel Downing putting a sawfish into a holding tank, 1975. (c) N. Downing.|
Before me were four wooden drawers holding carefully-wrapped layers of tissue paper, which I folded back to reveal bundles of rostra from very young sawfishes. I have never seen so many sawfish rostra all together in one place. On some, the skin still had a golden iridescence, while others were still encrusted with river mud or bore a solitary glittering fish scale, impaled on a needle-sharp tooth; they seemed like a collection of careworn Christmas decorations. In these museum drawers lie the relics of a time when sawfish saws could be collected by the handful and were worn on the headdresses of the Bijago people of Guinea-Bissau, or placed on the roofs of houses in The Gambia and Senegal to protect families from evil spirits. One of nature's most decadently-decorated animals, and the traditions it inspired, now only a fading memory in most West African societies.
In the stillness of the museum’s basement, where all is clean, carefully stored and climate-controlled, I felt a million miles from the dust, mud, burning sun, clamour and stench of fish markets and the general sensory overload that comes hand-in-hand with my usual fieldwork in Africa. But as I eyed the museum treasures, I was transported back in time to a different West Africa: one where rivers teemed with baby sawfish. Fishermen in Guinea-Bissau had described to me how, years ago, they went to the beach at night and speared small sawfish in the shallows by the light of their torch flames. Holding the miniature saws of young sawfish in my hands, I imagined and wondered at such a scene of abundance – a scene that exists no more.
|Juvenile Largetooth Sawfish caught in The Gambia in the 1970s. (c) Nigel Downing.|
Many thanks to Matt Lowe, Collections Manager at UMZC for facilitating access to the collection and to Save Our Seas Foundation for funding my visit to the museum.
This blog post was originally published on the Save Our Seas Foundation website: http://saveourseas.com/update/the-ghosts-of-sawfish-past/